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Pussy Riot founder urges change in a Trump world

Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokno. Photo: Sari Staver
Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokno. Photo: Sari Staver  

From the time she was a child, Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokno realized there was "something very wrong about the gender roles" assigned by society.

As the top student in her physics class, Tolokno recalled, the teacher congratulated her achievement and predicted she could go on to become "the wife of the president."

"I remember thinking, 'Really? Why the wife?'" she said in one of many lines that drew loud laughter from the audience. "I knew there was something very wrong" with the teacher's logic.

Tolokno, 27, making her first-ever appearance in San Francisco, was interviewed by Oakland activist Jadelynn Stahl at Herbst Theatre September 15, a presentation sponsored by the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Tolokno talked about her journey from a school girl to founding Pussy Riot, a feminist punk rock group that gained international attention when it staged provocative performances at unusual public places, which were then edited into music videos and uploaded online. Feminism and LGBT rights were among the themes.

Most notable was a 2012 performance staged inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which was halted by security officers and led to Tolokno's arrest and conviction for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" she said. She and another member of the group spent two years in a Siberian prison.

Tolokno credited her father with encouraging her feminism, suggesting that at age 8 "I was already too old to be reading Cosmopolitan" and she should instead immerse herself in political literature.

"And I did," said Tolokno, "partly because I wanted to be cool for my Dad." Now, she is urging her 9-year -old daughter to do the same.

Stahl, the founder of Disclose, a collective dedicated to encouraging dialogue about gender-based violence, asked Tolokno to compare Russian president Vladimir Putin with President Donald Trump.

Putin and Trump do have similarities, she said, calling them both "patriarchal assholes" who seem to want to get as much money as they can for themselves.

"Clearly, Trump doesn't give a flying fuck about people," she added.

Tolokno urged Americans "to come up with alternative institutions" such as shelters for victims of domestic violence, to prove to those who voted for Trump "that people can make a difference" in changing society.

"Change," said Tolokno, "is not going to happen in one click."
"But just being involved" can help people to feel they are not powerless over "all the shit" now happening in the United States, she added.

Tolokno said her two years in prison "made me a stronger feminist," but added that she "would not necessarily recommend it to others."

But "holding the vision that another world is possible" can be a powerful tool in making change, she said.

In 2014, Tolokno and other activists, including members of Pussy Riot, created a alternative media outlet called MediaZona, which among other things, talks about conditions in Russian prisons, courts, and police departments.

"If we in Russia can create an influential media outlet, anyone can do it," she said. "Something like that should work in America, where you definitely need more sources of reliable information."
Americans need to learn more about the penitentiary system at home, she said. "Conditions are really awful and it seems like the presidency of Donald Trump is only going to make things worse."


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